Shakespears Sister Interview: Sister Act II
Returning after 26 years, the reunion of Shakespears Sister is impossible not to cheer: the story of how Siobhan Fahey and Marcella Detroit became bitter enemies by accident and were unable to find the way back for so, so long. What happened? The pair explain how an unintended mega hit, jumping the fence at Glastonbury, yoga, The KGB and frustrations with Bananarama helped pave the way for a brilliant new chapter…
“It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? We’re back from the last century!” Marcella Detroit greets Classic Pop, as she and Siobhan Fahey get comfortable on their manager’s sofa. It’s a warm welcome, and Siobhan laughs along before she suddenly stops and looks horrified. “Actually, it was the last century,” she exclaims, appalled. “Oh my God!”
The decades it’s taken for Shakespears Sister to speak to each other again is sadder for the people involved than it is for fans. Sure, we’d have liked more audacious pop from Siobhan and Marcella to join Stay, You’re History and Goodbye Cruel World. But what about when a friendship has been broken and you feel too emotionally fragile to face mending it? What if they still hate you, or you fear losing control at explaining the resentment that’s been in your head all this time? Some things really are more important than pop music.
You know by now Shakespears Sister’s story has a happy ending. It’s clear from the hilarious self-mocking video of storming comeback single All The Queen’s Horses that Marcella and Siobhan are able to laugh at their split. The road to their new beginning, however, really is one that needed 26 years to build. “Before I sat down with Marcy, I spent a couple of years rehearsing what that conversation would be like,” explains Siobhan. “I didn’t want it to be a confrontation, I wanted it to be a resolution. I had to manage my approach. From my family background – and more generally in our culture – we’re not really trained in those kind of conversations at all. Any area of grievance is perceived as an attack, and it explodes into a horrible situation.”
Marcella was ready for Siobhan’s approach, which led to their first meeting in May 2018 at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, where both women live. She’d emailed Siobhan a couple of times in the 2000s. Her bandmate’s lack of response was saddening, but ultimately understandable. “All I wanted to do was have that conversation that had not been had for 26 years,” says Marcella. “I wanted to see if we could learn and understand each other, clear up any misconceptions we had about each other, and hopefully walk away as friends.”
The Second Coming
The management office of Shakespears Sister in North-West London is strewn with decades of awards, celebrating Steps, All Saints, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Jessie Ware. Sure enough, a gold disc for Shakespears Sister’s second album Hormonally Yours is discreetly tucked behind the sofa. Its makers look exactly as you’d hope in 2019. Marcella is cool and composed, in black felt hat, black buttoned jacket and polka dot skirt, her dark hair immaculately bobbed. Siobhan is just as stylish, matching grey jacket, waistcoat and trousers offset by a pink shirt. Her long, fair pigtails bounce as Siobhan explains her story, joyful at how the band is finally writing a second chapter. Marcella is warm and fascinating, but she’s happy to let Siobhan talk most, entertained as anyone would be by her friend’s passionate discourse. When Marcella talks, Siobhan turns to face her, keen to understand the other side of their tale of rivalry and redemption. There’s still a lot of catching up to do.
In the aftermath of Shakespears Sister’s split – officially in 1993, though they’d stopped speaking months before – Siobhan doubted herself. It’s sadly regular for Siobhan, who says: “I’ve always suffered horribly from self-doubt. I battle my ego and lock it into a tiny box, really questioning all the things I do. You need an ego to be an artist, and I hadn’t made friends with mine. There was a voice in my head saying, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? What gives you the right?’” Allied to her fears that she’d only make things worse if they met up, she wasn’t ready for Marcella’s first tentative approaches to say hello. “I just wasn’t able to go there,” she admits. “It had been such a painful period in my life, with a lot of unresolved feelings I needed to process. The idea of meeting up was daunting. I kept putting it off and putting it off, and the years rolled by. The resentment simmered, there on the back-burner. But you don’t want to take that to your grave with you. Life seems like it’s very long, but it goes by in the blink of an eye. There are so many lessons to learn, so much growth to be had, and that can take longer for people like me. I had to do a lot of inner work on myself.”
Siobhan says that inner work really started in 2012, when she took up kundalini yoga, a “very spiritual” practice which is about “healing, karma, forgiveness, love – all the big stuff. It’s very much about that, not getting a yoga body. Although you do get a yoga body, which is a bonus!”
Meanwhile, Marcella had gone back to writing songs for others. She’s released six albums since Hormonally Yours, but there was a 12-year gap between 2001’s Dancing Madly Sideways and The Vehicle in 2013. “You pour your heart and effing soul into something, so you want it to do really well,” she reasons. “It’s a little disheartening when it doesn’t then get the reception you’d like. So you have to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and do it because you love it, not because of your personal expectations of success.”
Sisters Of Mercy
When Marcella and Siobhan first met back up, their conversation lasted “a few hours”. Misconceptions were cleared up, there was hugs, awkwardness and, almost immediately, resolution. They next met up last July, when they had lunch before Siobhan saw Marcella play with her long-time writing partner Eric Clapton at his headline show in Hyde Park. By the time of a third meeting back in LA in October, the idea of writing music together again was totally natural. “I was desperate to make new music,” explains Siobhan, whose last full Shakespears Sister album had been Songs From The Red Room in 2009. “I had a concept about the sound of the record I wanted to make, but I didn’t know who I wanted to make it with. I’d been thinking about a duets album. Once we’d sorted our differences out, the obvious place to start was Marcy.”
They booked a four-day writing session at an Airbnb rented out by Siobhan’s friend in the Joshua Tree desert in California. “We’ve both got the pioneer spirit,” Siobhan laughs. “We didn’t want to just get back together to do a retro tour. Neither of us are interested, as it’s not creatively new or challenging. We both love the desert – I go to Joshua Tree to heal my soul, to think straight. It clears your head from the mundane and quotidian bullshit and opens your aerials up to more poetic, bigger ideas.” Marcella adds: “It’s brutal, dark and so inspiring. There’s such beauty there, the big night sky is incredible.” All The Queen’s Horses was the first song they wrote. “It was always easy for us to write together,” says Siobhan. “It’s a symbiotic relationship, where Marcy’s amazing musical gifts and her adventurous spirit are prepared to go along with my unique set of ideas and influences.”
There’s another new song on their forthcoming singles compilation Singles Party. Considering how bitter the split was, having a comeback song entitled C U Next Tuesday is a bold move… “It’s a whole new world of pain,” says Siobhan in-between laughs. “It’s actually a very positive and happy song, about when life gives you lemons you make lemonade. It’s a total ‘Fuck you!’ song, with a heavy Duane Eddy twanging guitar Americana flavour that’s in all the stuff we’re currently writing.” Another five songs are already demoed, with hopes of finishing an EP by the time they tour in October.
The video for All The Queen’s Horses is directed by Sophie Muller, the legendary filmmaker for promos by Beyoncé, Coldplay, Radiohead and Kylie. Sophie directed all of Shakespears Sister’s classic videos, having befriended Siobhan when Sophie made Eurythmics’ videos for the Savage album when Fahey was newly married to Dave Stewart. Sophie is godmother to Siobhan and Dave’s sons Sam and Django. “Sophie filmed the birth of my second child,” she notes. “She saw him before anyone else, with her camera in pole position.” The infant Sam is the baby dressed as a bumblebee in the You’re History video. “Sam is 31 now,” Siobhan points out. “I don’t think I’d better mention that video in front of his girlfriend.”
Excited to work with Shakespears Sister again, Sophie’s video sees Marcella and Siobhan aghast as hyper-real flashbacks to their heyday interrupt their otherwise monochrome “reunion” in a Wild West bar. It ends with Siobhan and Marcella having a play-fight. “We were very much method acting there,” laughs Marcella, explaining how the idea of her and Siobhan refusing to hold each other’s hand was inspired by seeing Donald Trump’s wife Melania do the same to him. “It was so much fun to film,” she enthuses, before Siobhan admits: “It’s very funny in how it mocks our difficulties. But I actually cried the first three times I saw it.”
It’s small wonder that Siobhan was so emotional – Shakespears Sister had started as her idea after she left Bananarama in 1988. “I knew I didn’t want to be a solo artist,” she explains. “Maybe that was a confidence thing. I really enjoy working as part of a team, but I didn’t know what I wanted it to be. I just knew I wanted to call it Shakespears Sister.”
The first Shakespears Sister album Sacred Heart only features Siobhan’s face on the cover, but Marcella had already become a great foil, both for her operatic voice and songwriting muscle. They even visited Soviet Russia together in 1988 to work with dissident singer Boris Grebenshschikov, with Sophie Muller capturing the trip on film. “I didn’t expect the place to be so exactly Russian,” admits Siobhan. “We were openly trailed by the KGB, the food was absolutely inedible and there was a lot of vodka but not much water. We managed to give the KGB the slip and wandered around with Sophie and her Super-8 camera. We went into a school and started filming in a classroom, which confused the teacher a bit.”
By the writing of Hormonally Yours, Shakespears Sister was officially a duo. Siobhan doesn’t remember when Marcella became her proper bandmate, but Marcella recalls it being discussed with their mutual songwriting friend Richard Feldman, whose home studio became the base to record Hormonally Yours. “Being a duo meant we didn’t need any guys around us,” says Siobhan. “Marcy can play pretty much any instrument, she can program, she can engineer. The thought was, ‘Shakespears Sister can be a project where two women do it all, without any men to facilitate it.’” Marcella relished the more experimental songwriting after years of being a reliable professional tunesmith, saying: “Coming from Detroit, I came from that whole roots and blues world. Shakespears Sister did well in the pop world, but it was much more adventurous than anything I’d done before.”
Cool For Cats
Hormonally Yours was initially going to be a concept album based around kitsch 1953 sci-fi film Cat-Women Of The Moon. Siobhan looked into buying the rights, so that she and Marcella could superimpose themselves into the film for the album’s videos. Stay was written from an idea of Dave Stewart’s, about how the Cat-Women could sing about an earthling that Marcella’s cat-woman fell in love with. Which is totally obvious material for a song to spend eight weeks at No.1. Looking at Siobhan, Marcella recalls: “You and Dave had these amazing parties where every major star in the world would be there: Timothy Leary, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Harry Dean Stanton… We’d sing there, everyone going, ‘Hey, give us a song!’ I’d sing I Will by The Beatles, and from there Dave suggested this song one morning about the cat-women. I don’t know, sometimes you connect with the universe and these things just happen.” As soon as they finished writing Stay, they took the demo back to Siobhan’s house, where Dave was recording with Roxy Music producer Chris Thomas. “Chris stood up saying, ‘No.1 smash!’ and we were ‘Really?’”
The problem was, Stay was the only song on Hormonally Yours on which Marcella sings lead vocals. “Shakespears Sister started to go wrong around the time of Stay being selected as a single,” Siobhan admits. “I was a bit gutted, because I felt it didn’t sound like the rest of the album. I wanted us to have a few hits before releasing Stay, but the record company were saying, ‘No, this is a hit.’ It caused tensions, and I thought, ‘Where are we going creatively here?’” Marcella: “But Stay was part of the album’s whole ethos.” The duo hadn’t even played live together, yet they were suddenly everywhere. Siobhan: “It got a bit embarrassing going back on Top Of The Pops week after week – ‘Sorry, here we are again!’”
The misconceptions between the pair began growing. Siobhan admits the band’s management seemed biased. Looking at Marcella, she says: “I already had management, which was Dave’s management, and I was living with Dave. It probably seemed like Camelot. I didn’t want it to be, but it might well have appeared like that to you?” Marcella admits: “It did – it was very firmly set up already,” to which Siobhan responds: “That all created a situation that was easy to misread.” Marcella recalls her hotel bills not being paid for, so she soon hired her own manager. “Looking back, having my own manager caused communication problems,” she says. “There was divisiveness from both parties.” Asked how she felt at the height of Shakespears Sister’s success, Marcella admits: “I thought, ‘Damn, this is supposed to be a happy, wonderful time!’ And instead I felt sad at the tension between us.”
It can’t have helped that, in 1992, here were two strong female artists going it alone at No.1. “Those challenges were definitely there,” nods Siobhan. “But if you focus too much on those battles, it only makes it harder to do what you do. We were leading our lives the way we wanted, despite the music industry.”
It should be pointed out that not everything about Shakespears Sister’s huge year was miserable. Although they’d largely stopped speaking, they enjoyed their shows – “We were a freaking great band,” points out Marcella. They were so impressive that Prince asked them to support him at Glasgow’s Celtic Park, where Siobhan had regularly watched Celtic with her dad as a kid. “What a double whammy, supporting Prince and on holy ground,” beams Siobhan. “Prince watched us from the side of the stage, though thankfully we didn’t know that at the time. That would have thrown us off our game.”
They supported Prince on Sunday 28 June 1992. The day before, Shakespears Sister joined Carter USM and Youssou N’Dour in headlining that year’s Glastonbury. “Glastonbury was just a blur,” sighs Marcella. “We were whistled in, whistled out, and we didn’t get to hang out, as we left the next morning.” It was the first time Siobhan had played the festival, and she’s only performed there once since, guesting with Dexys in 2014, keeping up a family association: Siobhan’s younger sister Máire plays Eileen in the Come On Eileen video. In between, Siobhan went to Glastonbury with some friends as a fan in 2001: just not a paying fan. “None of us had tickets, so we bunked in,” she says. “It was horrendous – we climbed over two very, very high fences with guard dogs in-between. We did end up inside, but we didn’t have a tent, so there was no comfortable place to be. It was like the Somme.”
Shakespears In Love
Keeping up with success meant there was no time to try mending their friendship. “I’ve always found it very difficult to air my grievances,” says Siobhan. “I tend to fight shy of any potentially volatile conversations.” If anything, Marcella was the opposite. “Maybe I’m spoiled,” muses Marcella, whose singer husband Lance Aston is the brother of Jay from Bucks Fizz. “I’ve been married for a really long time, and we can say anything to each other. I enjoy that, and when I’m with other people that honesty can come off as a bull in a china shop.”
They weren’t speaking and their respective mangers were little better. Marcella’s departure was confirmed onstage at the 1993 Ivor Novello Awards. The lack of communication by then meant nobody had told Marcella beforehand of the announcement.
Soon after Marcella had gone, Siobhan bumped into David Bowie. “David said he and his wife Iman were fans of Shakespears Sister,” boggles Siobhan. “David Bowie knew who we were and liked us? I could have died on the spot. I excitedly told him I’d just finished making a new album.” She had, but London refused to release the elegant #3, which remained on the shelves until 2004. At least the new Singles Party compilation shows how magnificent Siobhan Fahey is. If she doubts her talent, there’s no reason for anyone else to. It’s just a shame Bananarama weren’t able to release new music when Siobhan rejoined for 2017’s reunion tour. Siobhan certainly wanted to: Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin were less keen.
There’s no bitterness, just frustration as Siobhan explains: “I said from the start that just doing a UK tour wasn’t worth it for me. They agreed, I was really excited, and thought we’d at least make a single together.” Sara only wanted to record one song. “I was disappointed by that, but I was rolling with it.” At least the trio agreed on which song to record. “It was an easy flow, we were on the same page and we wrote what I thought was a cracking return to vintage form. But I seem to be the only person who thought that and I was the only person who wanted to finish it. I realised, ‘Oh, this actually is just going to be a UK tour.’ That was very painful emotionally and disappointing creatively.”
Despite her hurt, Siobhan remains fond of Keren and Sara, saying: “I love them very deeply, they’re soulmates. We were three rebellious teenagers who proved the world wrong by having hit after hit. The tour was wonderful in that we found out we were national treasures. Bananarama was an intense, deep relationship – Sara and Keren are like my first wives. Going back was the closing of a circle.”
You could call Shakespears Sister a larger circle, though lord knows what symbiotic shape Siobhan and Marcella ultimately form. It’s taken 26 years, but Shakespears Sister have got both their friendship and their groove back. Siobhan Fahey: “Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. This feels right.” It sounds right, too.
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